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How one NYC construction company saved 96% of its waste from the landfill

Construction sends millions of tons of waste to landfills every year. CNY Group is trying to recycle it instead.

How one NYC construction company saved 96% of its waste from the landfill
[Photos: Sherry H. Bowen Photography/Getty Images, C Dustin/Unsplash]

The construction industry generates a lot of waste. Construction and demolition create more than 600 million tons of waste debris every year in the U.S., according to Environmental Protection Agency figures from 2018. That’s twice as much as the municipal waste collected from homes and businesses in cities.

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As a 40-year veteran of the industry, Ken Colao of the New York-based construction company CNY Group knows the problem well. So when he began trying to turn his company into a B Corporation—with certified high environmental, social, and governance standards—he realized he needed to know just how much his firm’s projects were contributing to the problem. He started by quantifying the waste streams of his company’s projects, with an eye toward recycling at least 50% of the waste from each construction site. It’s a standard used by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification system, so Colao knew it was possible.

When his company started keeping track, it found the amount of waste from construction sites could be reduced even more. According to evidence from a few recent projects, CNY Group was able to divert or recycle more than 90% of the waste and surplus material from major construction projects. “It was a surprise,” Colao says.

For two large New York City projects, CNY closely tracked the materials and waste flows during the entire construction process. The company’s construction managers kept close watch on what was being used (from wood to glass to electronic waste to Sheetrock), what was left over, and where those materials went after the job was done.

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For a two-tower, 729-unit residential project called the Crossing at Jamaica Station, the company found it was able to recycle, reduce, or reuse 93% of the material that might otherwise have gone to a landfill. “That equated to over 5,600 tons of material,” Colao says. For a 405-unit residential building in Queens called Halletts Point, the company’s rate hit 96%.

The high rates of recyclability and reuse were a result of the company paying close attention to the amount of materials purchased for the projects and making sure to find certified waste haulers that could take recyclable material to certified recycling facilities. Colao says concrete waste from the projects have been crushed for reuse as aggregate in roadbeds. Wood waste has been turned into chips and sent to a cardboard factory on Staten Island (coincidentally, that factory was also built by Colao’s company).

The problem isn’t just in new buildings, though. The vast majority of the industry’s waste—about 90%—comes from the demolition of buildings. Chunks of concrete, wood, old Sheetrock, and bits of plaster from demolished buildings rarely have a second life, though some designers are finding ways to create buildings that can be disassembled and easily reused or recycled in the future. New buildings can play a role in what does or doesn’t get demolished down the line. On the construction side, the share of waste still adds up to a whopping 60 million tons annually.

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Colao says the recycling and diversion numbers CNY Group has recorded for its projects are proof that the construction industry can lessen its waste problem. But, he argues, addressing the issue will take more than just construction companies making an effort. “We’re like the army. We’re the guys and gals who are on the ground making it happen. We’re implementing it,” he says. “We’re not designing it per se and we’re not initiating how budgets are spent.”

CNY Group has begun to work with its subcontractors from the earliest stages of a project to better control what materials are selected and in what quantities, ensuring the carpenters aren’t buying excessive amounts of Sheetrock and gypsum, for example, or convincing the subcontractor doing the tiling to select tiles that can be more easily recycled.

“The biggest challenge that we have is education of the trade contractors,” Colao says, adding, “We’re convinced that when trades adopt some of these standards and see that their materials costs on projects are lower, their profits are a little bit higher, and in the future they can bid a little bit more competitively, they’ll see there’s a very clear business advantage.”

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Colao notes that ideally this accounting for waste recycling and diversion will happen at the earliest stages of a project—during its design, for example, or even as a condition tied to its construction loan. “Slowly,” he says, “as the architects and the engineers start specifying it and the developers and the owners start requiring it, that’s how I think it will help evolve the industry.”

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